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  travel emails from Mexico & Guatemala, summer 2004 (page 2) ||||| quisquose.tripod.com |||||

 
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PHOTOS from Lago Atitlan and Full Moon volcano hike

--- LAGO ATITLAN (SAN PEDRO) ---


Daybreak at our campsite on the ridge overlooking Lago Atitlan.

We went for a swim, and found a class of fifth-graders had the same idea.

The only truly busy part of San Pedro.
 

The hiking group from Xela, tired but all accounted for.

The salsa band was burning up the stage while the villagers -- who absolutely packed the plaza -- stood and watched silently...

Many villagers -- especially women -- still wear traditional indigenous garb, like this couple, the parents of the hotel owner.
 

--- FULL MOON VOLCANO HIKE (XELA) ---


We could see the other volcanoes in the range at the break of dawn.

Georgia pretty well awed by the shadow Santa Maria casts on the coastal plain at dawn.

Santiaguito sends up a plume of smoke (every 20 minutes) as Santa Maria's shadow recedes.

#09 Full Moon volcano hike
Sent: Friday, 07/02/04
Hi friends and family,

I had one of the most amazing experiences of my life the other night: I went
on a hike with Quetzaltrekkers (the same non-profit that led 
the hike from Xela to Lago Atitlan) up the dormant 
Santa Maria volcano under the light of the full moon, to arrive at sunrise for
an absolutely stunning view of the mountains of southern Guatemala, as the
quite active Santiaguito Volcano just a few kilometers away (we watched it
belch enormous clouds of smoke into the air a few times - fascinating).

Of course, an overnight hike is tiring, so I've been recovering the last day
or so; but I've also run into some 'old' friends (I'm back in Xela after a
week at Lake Atitlan) and am having a wonderful time being in their company
again. The 'vacation' ends this week, though, as I'm volunteering with an
organzation (hopefully rural development and organic farming) for all of
next week.

OK, much love to you all!



#10 understanding poverty through spaghetti and beer
Sent: Sunday, 07/11/04
Hello family and friends,

(this is a long one - grab a coffee!)

In my last email I told y'all about the amazing overnight hike up the Santa
Maria volcano under the full moon to catch sunrise over the plains and
volcanoes of southern Guatemala. An absolutely unforgettable experience, but
I paid a price by catching a cold (the celebratory rounds of beer and whisky
later that night with friends probably didn't help much...) that continues
to hang on (yes, mom, I've been to a doctor and have some medication).

The cold delayed my plans to volunteer with a rural cooperative plantation
early last week. By last Thursday, though, I was on a "chicken" bus again,
going south out of the cool mountains into the hot, humid coastal plain.

I'll say right here that I didn't have much of an idea what I was getting
into. I wanted to do some volunteering and Spanish immersion, and so visited
the Kab'awil organization (www.kabawil.org  - they
are an organization with roots in the populist side of the recently ended
civil war, and currently help indigneous communities acquire land and
operate cooperatively-run plantations) here in Xela on advice of a friend.
They told me I was welcome to visit their project sites and volunteer where
I could fit in. So, I was to meet up with a Guatemalan agronomy student at
5:30 the next morning to catch a bus down there. Good luck.

I have to leave out many details -- like the beautiful chaos of the
Mazatenango bus "station" (basically any available square foot of space in
the fill-up lanes or intersection in front of the main gas station), the
insanely bumpy and slow pick-up ride through the forest to the
plantations -- otherwise this email will go on forever. Suffice to say, we
finally arrived at the plantation "California" in late morning, and I was
left with Oscar, the agronomy student (who was there to start his year-long
stint at the plantation) to look around.

"California" apparently was a big coffee plantation up until about 30 years
ago, and much of the old infrastructure (buildings, machinery, water-driven
turbine) was still there, although not being used. The indigneous community
(Kich'e Mayas) now inhabiting and using California through the help of
Kab'awil raises a mixture of crops, including bananas, rubber, coffee, milk
and chickens. Oscar and I first visited the new chicken-raising facility, a
long covered pavilion for raising up to 5,000 chickens; when we arrived,
they'd just unloaded the first 1,000 "pollitos" (chicks) and were installing
the feeding and watering mechanisms, and the supervising campesino couple
was receiving their certificates of Chicken Husbandry from the official
instructor from the city. I found out later that the World Bank apparently
provided some (if not all) funding for the project, but there was still some
uncertainty about how all those chickens would actually be sold...

Afterwards, we jumped on the tractor and joined a work crew in loading up
banana bunches from the forest to bring back to the warehouse; they used a
special tool to cut giant palm leaves from the trees to line the tractor
bed. As a special treat, I found that the work crew gets to eat any bananas
that are already ripe (they'll go bad, otherwise), so I had my first banana
fresh off the tree (delicious!).

My accommodations were a mattress on a couple planks of wood supported by
concrete blocks on the floor of the room of the Kab'awil rep, who slept on
an old pool table - all in the community's communal house (ie, the old
plantation home). The commmunity included about 45 families, who lived in
their own small wooden houses/shacks (former plantation worker housing, I
think) clustered in the forest off the road. We had our meals, including the
odd reversal of spaghetti and tortillas for breakfast and eggs, beans and
tortillas for dinner, at one of the families' houses.

The next day I joined a work crew digging and filling a trench for a pipe to
carry potable water from a spring in the forest to a holding tank at the
road -- good, hard work which I really enjoyed. Afterwards, I tried to
follow (with my poor Spanish) a workers' meeting about possible changes in
the rubber harvesting procedures -- there was a proposal to have specialists
supervise the harvest instead of having everyone do it collectively; the big
concern, of coruse, was that having 'managers' could threaten the
cooperative, collective nature of the plantation; yet, they needed to
increase productivity.

That afternoon I was going to help with a project to build a community stove
so people wouldn't have to cook over open fires for the big meals. This is
apparently a very common humanitarian assistance project in Guatemala, as
the old-style open fires:

- are usually indoors, which means the smoke causes respiratory problems for
the families, and

- require more fuel than stoves, which means people (usually the young and
elderly men) have to harvest and carry (piled on their backs, with a sling
around their foreheads) more wood in from the forests.

The project was being led by an American volunteer, who turned out to be a
woman with Jobs With Justice from Eugene, Oregon (just a few hours away from
where I live in Portland). I quickly found out, though, that the project was
also meant to be an opportunity for the women of the community to experience
what would otherwise be considered "men's work" (ie, constructing
something), so I left with some of the other men and got an impromptu tour
of their water-driven electrical turbine, the rubber tree fields and the
dairy farm.

My cough was increasingly hampering my ability to talk and listen to people,
so the next morning I said my early goodbyes and caught the 6:30am pick-up
truck back to town to see a doctor and head back to Xela.

OK, I'll pause the narrative there to make some observations about the
plantation/organization:

- The plantation is run by the "organization" of 45 families. They have a
Council with a Chairperson (a man, at this point) which makes decisions on
projects, contracts, etc. The people actually living at the plantation are
mostly either under 14 or over 30 -- all the young adults apparently live
and work in nearby cities to earn cash for their families and the
organization. Some if not all of the families also live in a town in the
highlands, and rotate with other families to take turns living on the
plantation.

- The community is indigenous Kich'e-Maya, which means a number of things.

For one, they all speak Kich'e at home and with each other, and Spanish for
everything else. Also, apparently like many indigenous groups in Guatemala
and Mexico, the women generally wore traditional dress and handle cooking,
cleaning and kids, while the men wore 'western' clothes and handled
traditional manual farm labor and project decisions (Kab'awil and others
have been trying to change this division of labor, getting women involved in
decision-making and other projects, but it's a long task in the face of
tradition and poverty).

- At least among the men, all tasks were shared and there wasn't any
'official' schedule such as, say, "Tomorrow's morning shift will be Juan,
Jose and Miguel on bananas and Federico, Oscar and Saul on rubber trees".

When I asked him, the Chariman told me it's all just in their heads, nobody
ever says "no" to a task, etc. It's impossible for me to tell from just
being there for two days, but from my own experience with cooperative
decision-making, I imagine that they figure out what needs to be done for
the long and medium terms in their formal meetings, and who will do what in
the short term in their daily informal gatherings and side conversations.

After I left the plantation I made it to Mazatenango and was recommended a
doctor who happened to be a respiratory specialist and who I could see that
morning. Hours later, medication in hand, I made a last-minute decision to
heed all the hints I'd been getting (ie, I'd tell people I was going to Xela
and they'd say "It's so cold there," (it's not, really) "bad for your
cough") and turn around and head for the coast. Within an hour I was on the
black volcanic sands of Champerico, wondering where my hat was (I'd left it
on the bus) and suddenly realizing I was almost out of money from having
purchased the medication.

OK, here's where all this rambling and story-telling starts to come together
under the 'povery' topic of this email. Champerico is mostly a tourist town
(Guatemalan tourists, that is). Not much going on except loads of beach-side
palm-roofed cantinas, a dilapidated giant old pier, a small market, and some
fisherman scrounging out a living. I pretty quickly learned a thing or two
about this small-town poverty that started bringing what I'd been learning
about city (Xela) and rural (the plantations) poverty into a more complete
picture.

My conversation with Mauricio was a large part of this. I met Mauricio while
walking back from the town center to my hotel in the early evening. A big
guy, especially by Central American standards, Mauricio was standing with
his bike outside a bar and had said hello in English; I figured I'd give
this interesting guy a few minutes. I quickly found out this interesting guy
had an interesting story, so I bought him a beer and we talked.

Mauricio was actually from El Salvador, and lost his family in the civil war
there (thank you, USA) when he was a child. At age 16 (this is about 20
years ago) he rode freight trains north and crossed the desert to enter the
US, finding work in southern California. He was booted out two years later,
but claimed to be Guatemalan so he wouldn't be returned to El Salvador, and
soon ended up in Champerico where he eventually started a family and bought
a house.

The happy story soon ended, though, when he lost his wife and kids (I didn't
press for details) and work started to dry up. He became a fisherman, and
today lives hand-to-mouth like the other fishermen, wondering each day if
they'll make it back home alive, living off the inconsistent abundance of
the sea. During our conversation two different guys high on crack came in
and asked Mauricio and I for a Quetzal (worth about 25 cents; I have a
policy of not giving money to beggars when traveling, until I know the local
norms).

After a little conversation (including the first guy, who asked me where I
was from and said "I hope not America, because I don't like Americans"),
Mauricio eventually gave them each some money and they left.

Afterwards he told me they were both fisherman he knew, and because the
fishermen depend on each other for their livelihood (for safety, for knowing
where the fish are biting), and because it was a small town where everyone
knew each other, he really couldn't tell them to just piss off. Besides,
they were his people, his only community.

And he wasn't much different from them, he said. They all earned just
enought to scrape by -- he just chose to spend the extra $2 he could spare
on beer, instead spending the $2 and begging for more for the crack, like
these others.

Throughout this conversation I began to understand a little bit better what
living in poverty perhaps means, and lose some of my judgements about it. In
many ways, perhaps it means a lack of opportunity -- the inability to
improve your condition unless you take desperate measures, such as risking
your life to work in the States for a few years; or risking jail to rob
someone else; or leaving behind everything you've ever known, all your
relationships, your connections, your culture, and risking everything on an
entirely new life full of unknowns.

Re that last point. I asked Mauricio why didn't he move to Guatemala City,
if there was no work here. I should have guessed the answer: He's 42, his
whole life is here, he doesn't have any modern "marketable" skills -- he'd
be just as bad off in Guatemala City as here, if not worse. At least he has
his community here, and the crime rate is much lower.

He offered to buy me a beer, but I didn't want to make my cough worse, and
needed to go soon anyway, so I said no. He asked me to write me a card from
where I live, and, he joked, a couple hundred bucks while I'm at it; I told
him I'd send him my leftover Quetzales instead, as I wouldn't need them. He
told me how he started believing in God when he prayed for his son to
survive a bad sickness many years ago (he did), and even more so now that he
takes that tiny fiberglass boat into the ocean every day.

Like many other Guatemalans I'd met, he considered himself Christian, didn't
like what the Evangelical (and Mormon) missionaries were doing in his
country, and respected my differing spiritual beliefs (which I wasn't about
to try to explain in Spanish. ¿Como se dice "Unitarian-Universalism"?).

We talked briefly about fairness -- how is it that I should have everything
(family, enough money to travel, let alone live comfortably) and he has
nothing? We talked about life,the CIA and some other things. He walked me
down to my street for safety. We said goodbye, and he said he didn't really
want me to send him any money, he was just happy to have met me. (He may not
have much, but he still has his pride.)

So Mauricio continues living his life out, braving the ocean every day and
having a beer with a friend once in a while, nothing much to hope for
anymore except to live another day, and stay afloat in this world without
health insurance, without pensions, without real opportunity. And the
campesinos on the plantation continue their work, pooling their resources as
they can, but also with little ability to make do with anything other than
what life happens to gives them: the natural spring in the forest, a shaky
new chicken project, a little money from the son in the city. Spaghetti for
breakfast.

---

Back to the present: I am, yet again, back in Xela and thinking about
finishing my time in Guatemala by doing a final week of Spanish school in
here Xela (since it's so cheap). Also, some good friends are still in Xela
for many more months of Spanish courses than me, so by staying I can look
forward to spending more time with them.

Much love to you all, and I'll try to send another email in about a week.

=)

-d


Xela: Brooke and Nina.


Busy, noisy, hot Mazatenango, on the way to Champerico.


On the bus from Champerico, I could see Santa Maria and Santiaguito in the distance.


#11 into the heart of empire(s)
Sent: Thursday, 07/22/04 (approximately)
Hello family and friends,

I've been in Mexico City for almost a week now, following twenty hours of
buses, collectivos and subways journeying between two similar and yet very
different cultures.

My trip started in the ancient, ex-US school buses that are public transport
in Guatemala, riding in the front seat to get the view and the breeze from
the always-open door as we descended from the cool mountains to the hot and
humid coastal plain. After two hours of corn fields and banana plantations
we reached the border town of Tecún Uman, where I searched in vain for a
'comedor' to spend my remaining Quetzales on lunch. Settling for some
bananas and avacados instead, I walked the streets full of chickens,
children and street vendors to the border house, which I went through
easily.

To cross the 1 km of shadowless bridge to the Mexico side I broke down and
hired a 'tricyclo' (bicycle taxi) -- older vehicles, but otherwise identical
to the bicycle taxis I pedaled in New York six years ago.

The driver talked with me about the difficulty of making a living on the
tricyclos, wholly dependent on the changeable volume of pedestrian border
traffic -- but he'd been doing it for years (now at age 45) and scratching
out a living from it somehow. The city planner / bike enthusiast in me was
delighted at the special tricyclo lanes we drove through at the Mexican
border; although I was soon dismayed to learn that my newly-bought bananas
and avacados would not be allowed into Mexico (so I had to eat
them -lunchtime!).

Now in the Mexican border town, I was immediately struck by the better
condition of the streets, the more modern and busier stores, the presence of
people, even women, in shorts... and also by the lack of children playing in
the streets, the greater amount of cars, the faster pace of things in
general. I caught a collectivo van to Tapachula, a larger nearby town from
where the buses to Mexico City left. Not five minutes down the road we
encountered a military checkpoint, the first of six that evening, which I
quickly figured out were meant to catch illegal immigrants (headed to the
US) and illegal drugs -- and perhaps to remind the locals (for I was back in
the state of Chiapas) that the State, and not the EZLN (the Zapatista
movement), was in control here.

Once we reached Tapachula I was back in the world of chain restaurants and
Wal-Marts (yes, Wal-Mart, or at least "Sam's Club", has reached
Chiapas --thank you, NAFTA), and quickly caught an overnight bus to Mexico
City. On the bus I was seated next to a friendly man who ended up attracting
as much attention as I did at the checkpoints -- each time, the immigration
official or soldier would just glance at everyone else's Mexican ID cards,
but would pore through my passport and closely inspect the official-looking
paper my seatmate always presented. At the fourth stop, my seatmate was
asked to step outside by the immigration fellow, and as we drove away
without him, the young guy seated in front of me (who later told me he'd
snuck into the US a few years ago, himself) said the guy was most likely a
Guatemalan trying to reach the US border, and not a Mexican from Tapachula
as he'd claimed. Many hours and a mid-night dinner stop at a highway bus
service area later, we arrived at our destination, and I took the subway to
the central Zocalo (public square), which my hostel was close to.

So I emerged from the subway at the Zocalo into the middle of downtown
Mexico City, vendors hawking everything from Che Guevara T-shirts to pirated
CDs and DVDs, a protest march making its way around the square; ...and also
into the former heart of the Spanish conquest, surrounded by the imposing
and gorgeous National Palace, Cathedral and Mexican flag (the former at
least 50 feet long, undualting slowly in the breeze), powerful symbols of
State, Church and Country; ...and also into the center of the ancient Aztec
empire, amid the ghosts of the towering temples razed by Cortes to pave the
first Zocalo, the lake of Texcoco which would have surrounded the island I
would have been standing on, the millions of 'indigenas' killed, enslaved
and subjugated...

...And at the same time, I'd also stepped back to where I ultimately felt I
belonged: a modern metropolis. I loved the plantations, villages and towns
I've visited the last three months -- but I'm a city boy at heart, I think.
I walked through the market, past the street musicians and taxis and office
workers and tourists, past the protesters and police and the group in full
Aztec garb dancing around a makeshift altar of fruit and incense, and came
home.

In the last week I've taken in bits and pieces of this absolutely enormous
metropolis: tourist highlights like the cathedral, Diego Rivera murals, and
the ruins of the 'Templo Mayor' Aztec temple which the cathedral only
partially replaced; the glitzy, western nightlife of the Zona Rosa and
Condesa neighborhoods; the gorgeous old neighborhoods/towns full of both
colonial memories and very current vitality... Of course, there's far too
much to describe in an email -- the highlights for me so far have been the
canals, alleyways and bicycle taxis of Xochimilco; the Templo Mayor and
Frida Kahlo (who's work I don't even really like) museums, and the
'intercambios' (conversation exchanges, one hour in English, one hour in
Spanish) in parks and cafes I've been doing with some new Mexican friends.

Oh yes, and the people I've been meeting!: Antonio, a tourist info kiosk guy
I do intercambios with who is fascinated by sociology and politics but is
pursuing international tourism and moving to France in the fall; Kristen, a
pre-school teacher from LA who reveled with me in Coyoacan's gorgeous
colonial architecture and amazing little churches and plazas; Josh, a young
American who fulfilled multiple stereotypes by getting drunk with some
English guys at a bar and unwittingly blowing $2,000 US off his dad's credit
card on a private session with a table dancer; or Citlalli, a co-worker of
Antonio's with whom I shared a lovely evening of tacos, cheescake and
teaching each other bad words in our own languages (she also got to watch me
get completely embarassed by a street clown who asked me, in front of about
40 people, if I was enjoying my visit and if I liked the Mexican women!).

Unfortunately, I am just about out of time for this trip -- I fly back to
the States (first a week in New Jersey, then to Portland) in six days, but I
still haven't visited the must-see ruins of Teotihuacan (tomorrow), the
world-famous Museum of Anthropology, the Museum of Art, the house where
Trotsky was assassinated, the site of the 1968 Tlateloco government massacre
of univeristy students, and many, many other things on my list. I won't see
everything, but I will definitely return to this amazing place in the
future.

Take care, all of you, and I'll send probably one more email from New Jersey
with links to all my photos! Much love from Mexico City,

=)
-d


Mexico City's -- and Mexico's -- main public square, the zocalo.


Carpenters, plumbers, masons and other workers set up in the zocalo, ready to be hired.


Hauling ice with a bicycle and trailer.


When Mexicans disagree with government policies, they [gasp!] protest. In the zocalo.


People in the zocalo line up to be blessed by an Aztec priest.


Even Mexico City is not immune to Wal-Mart and "Suburbia".


#12 Mariachis, Pyramids and... New Jersey!
Sent: Friday, 07/30/04
Hello family and friends,

This past week was the last of my journeys, and I wrapped it up with a
tiring but exhilarating mixture of museums, sightseeing and time with
friends. I'll start with last Thursday, when I met up again with Antonio,
the Mexican guy I've been doing language exchanges with, and we visited his
friend Monica in a beautiful art deco neighborhood in central Mexico City.

Antonio had told me when I was getting to know him that he and his tourist
information co-workers generally didn't think much of Americans, and he was
pleasantly surprised to meet an American like me who was interested in
something other than bars and cheap places to shop. Monica said similar
things after we'd talked for a while, and I began to wonder just how bad
Mexican public opinion about Americans really is! The three of us spent a
nice evening visiting an outdoor exhibition of photographs of old Mexico
City, then went a café with killer cappuccino (we're not in Chiapas
anymore!) in the flashy Zona Rosa neighborhood.

Friday I took a day off from Spanish conversation and did a little
sightseeing. I first visited the Santo Domingo church, which fronts on a
plaza and building where the Spanish Inquisition used to torture its victims
and where church scribes would sit under the arcade and read and write for
the illiterate. These services to the public (the reading and writing, not
the torturing) continue to this day, now in the form of typewriters (for
letters) and manual printing presses (for custom-made cards). Later, I
visited the amazing public murals at the Secretariat of Public Education and
a nearby museum. Even after three months, I'm still always a little
surprised when I run into the overtly Communist themes, messages and symbols
that still exist in Mexico (I was, after all, raised in the Reagan years) -
whether in hammer-and-sickle flags carried by demonstrators in Oaxaca or
images of Lenin and Mao in Diego Rivera's paintings.

That evening I set off with friends in search of a good bar, and we
eventually found it in an amazing Cuban place called `Mambarumba'. This
two-floor live music salsa club seemed straight out of a music video, and we
stayed until 3am watching the band, the dancing couples and the hopeful
singles from the balcony. As I'd been warned, it was the kind of place that
can make you kick yourself for skipping those extra salsa lessons!

On Saturday I finally made it to the enormous Museum of Anthropology, and
even before I went in I got to witness both a traditional Aztec dance and an
amazing indigenous ritual from Veracruz where four men climb up a pole (this
one was at least 40' high), attach ropes wound around the top of the pole to
their ankles, and `fly' down to the ground as the ropes unwind, slowly
spinning them through the air like a kind of high-rise carousel. I ended up
spending more time in the museum than I'd planned and missed the bus I'd
been thinking of taking to the hill town of Guanajuato for the rest of the
weekend. This worked out for the best, though, as back at the hostel I
unexpectedly ran into my good friend Nina, a jovial Danish woman I'd had
many fun times with in Xela.

Later that evening I went with Nina and giant tangle of other travelers to
the Plaza Garibaldi, which could also be described as Mariachi Central. I
didn't understand the whole Mariachi phenomenon until I came here, so I'll
try to explain it for others who aren't familiar with it. You've seen
mariachis in movies - they're the guys dressed up in fancy cowboy gear, or
glittery `traditional Mexican' costume complete with wide black-and-silver
sombreros, who sing traditional songs with giant guitars, brassy trumpets
and syrupy voices. In contemporary Mexican culture, mariachis are basically
live jukeboxes for hire - whether you want a song on the spot or music for
your party on the other side of town. On weekends, Plaza Garibaldi fills
with over 40 mariachi groups, playing and singing for whoever will pay --
and people do pay: couples who want a romantic dance, big groups of friends
who want to sing along to `Guantanamera', drunk bar hoppers who want to
reminisce with a favorite tune.

We loved the mariachis, and hired a few songs for ourselves; but ultimately
we were in search of cheap tequila and dancing, and so headed to an cozy old
place on the plaza where the beer bottles came in metal buckets and the
dance floor action rotated between salsa, traditional dance performances and
a lounge singer who would have been straight out of the 70's were we in the
States.

We had a great time - I personally much prefer authentic places like this
one, or the live music club of a few nights before, to the blasting-music,
flashing-light, bump-and-grind scene of so many modern clubs (even if the
`authentic place' has changed neither decor nor clientele in 30 years).

The birthday party group next to us was dancing and signing, I danced a
little salsa with a woman from New York, the lounge singer was surprisingly
entertaining, the beer and conversation flowed freely.

It was an all-around perfect Saturday night, until suddenly one of the women
in our group (who'd been doing more than her share of drinking and dancing)
realized her wallet was missing, possibly snatched by this one kind of shady
guy who'd been dancing with her and buying her drinks. After much searching
and heated discussions, we eventually made our way back to the hostel to
contact her credit card company. On the bright side, however, a New Zealand
friend and one of the American girls managed to strike up a little
other-sides-of-the-globe travelers' romance during the confusion.

Over the next few days, friends and I took in the gorgeous Palace of Fine
Arts and its enormous Rivera, Orozco and Siquieras murals; the relaxed
Sunday crowds walking through Alameda Central park; and the city vista from
the top of the Latinamerica Tower, once the tallest in Mexico. We also
visited the Plaza of the Three Cultures, so named because it is home to the
ancient (ruins of a sacred Aztec site), as well as the colonial (the
cathedral built with the stones of the Aztec temple there) and the modern
(the Exterior Ministry building, constructed in the 60s). The Plaza, sadly,
has also been the site of two massacres: first in the 1520s when the Aztecs
suffered their final defeat by Hernan Cortes, and then in 1968 when the
Mexican police and army opened fire on thousands of university students
protesting government corruption and oppression just days before the city
would play host to the Olympic games (over 300 were killed, and the
government refused to acknowledge the tragedy even took place until 1993).

Tuesday was my last day , and I spent it with friends visiting Teotihuacán,
site of the largest pyramids in Latin America and one of the most important
ceremonial centers of the Aztec world. We capped the day off with a return
to the salsa bars of Plaza Garibaldi (a long story involving a drunk
accountant from the Mexican national oil company, a tall Scottish girl who
really knew her salsa, and a finicky group of 10 French and Quebecois
wandering in search of just the right club), and by Wednesday midday I was
saying my goodbyes and boarding the subway to the airport. Nine hours later
(including a mad rush to catch my connecting flight in Houston's "George
Bush Intercontinental Airport", which actually has a little nook/shrine off
the main hallway with a life-size bronze statue of George H. striding into
the wind, blazer fluttering over his shoulder; I can only imagine what the
new Ronald Reagan building in DC is like.) I was back in New Jersey, hearing
from my taxi driver how a cottage studio apartment in a tiny town near my
house you couldn't have given away ten years ago is now renting for $900 a
month.

So now I'm in New Jersey for a little over a week, and making the most of
this unexpected time with my family (I changed my flight plans so I could
visit my grandmother here for probably the last time). I've been spending
the humid July days mostly indoors, catching up on US news, wrapping up trip
stuff, and preparing for grad school and my return to Portland.

I'm going to spend a few days on the Jersey shore with my family next
weekend at the start of THEIR vacation, and head back to Portland early the
next week to start this new phase of my life.

Boy, there's so much I've learned on this trip, both about the places I've
visited and about myself. I've already been asked what the most memorable
part of the trip was; that's not a hard question, actually. Many weeks ago I
wrote about Patrick, a crazy Swedish guy who's been to 80 countries and is
prone to unveiling his impressive beer belly while asking if you'd like to
`spoon' with him. When I asked Patrick back then what _his_ favorite place
was that he'd been to, he told me (paraphrased, of course), "After a while,
you've seen so many amazing waterfalls and mountains and beaches that it's
not the _places_ you visit but the _people_ you're with that really make it
enjoyable." I completely agree -- more than any one place or experience,
however amazing, the most memorable for me will be the people I've met, the
new friends I've made. I plan to keep in touch with many of them, and have
already thought about dropping in on a few next summer in Europe.

Thanks for reading these emails and accompanying me on this journey!

And thank you to all the wonderful people I met on the road who have joined
my little mailing list here - you're always welcome to visit me in Portland
(as soon as I get a place to live!). Take care, everyone, and happy travels,

=)

-d


Market street in downtown Mexico City.


The Cathedral and zocalo at night (from the roof of my hostel).


Tlateloco, site of injustices past and present.


Atop Piramide de la Luna, overlooking Aveneda de los Muertos and the giant Piramide del Sol.


With Brenda, Adria, Nina and Enrique at the base of Piramide del Sol.


Postscript
March 2005,

Since returning to Portland I've settled into a pretty different life from what I had here before my trip. Whereas before I was

I'm now
  • happily living alone in a my own apartment,
  • studying in graduate school to pursue a Masters in Urban Studies, and
  • working with a friend's small company in my most interesting job title to date, "Psychometric Associate".

Things are going well, and I'm looking forward to a least three more years in Portland, if not longer, or even permanently (still feeling torn between here and New Jersey). Feel free to contact me at quisquose {at} yahoo.com -- traveling friends are always welcome to crash in my apartment.


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